Charity and the end of an actress

Not too long ago, I took my family to the Ashmolean in Oxford, where I stumbled upon this remarkable painting (click to enlarge).


Joshua Reynolds painted this image of Elizabeth Linley as Charity as part of a 1777 commission to provide designs for new glass in the chapel of New College, Oxford. This painting, only ever meant as a model, was never brought to completion, but I find that it makes its beauty all the more haunting. Indeed, until you recognise the characteristic glow of Reynold’s style, you might mistake this piece for something from the nineteenth century, and not the last quarter of the eighteenth.

Reynold’s model was a famous beauty of the eighteenth century, who is now known mainly for being the wife of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The playwright actually eloped with her to France in 1772, but as she was still only seventeen, their marriage was invalid. Upon their return Sheridan fought a duel to defend his fiancée’s honour, and Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Linley, eventually relented and allowed the couple to marry.

As was not uncommon for the time, Sheridan married Elizabeth on the condition that she stopped performing on the stage, ending a career that had begun at the age of 12. Married at the age of eighteen, Elizabeth suffered many miscarriages, gave birth to a son and then died of tuberculosis at thirty-eight. Portraits of her hang in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and, of course, the Ashmolean.

Even though Reynold’s died before completing the New College commission, Thomas Jervais finished the job. With some spare time in the city, I took a trip to the look at his handiwork, hoping to see what remains an unusual piece: a child-actress and great beauty of the stage, forced out of the public eye and then immortalised as Charity in the stained glass of an Oxford chapel. I was disappointed, though. There is little of Linley in this (click to enlarge):


All of which makes the Reynold’s painting, with its classical allusions and use of contrapposto, all the more unique. I am over-romanticising here, but can’t help but compare Reynold’s unrealised sketch to Linley’s unrealised promise.

One thought on “Charity and the end of an actress”

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